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Sex abuse laws defy American justice

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Convicted June 22, 2012 of child endangerment, 62-year-old Monsignor William Lynn got a belated Christmas gift Dec. 26 when a Pennsylvania appeals panel tossed out his conviction of aiding-and-abetting priest sex abuse. Accused of endangering public welfare by reassigning a pedophile priest Edward Avery to a Philadelphia parish where he molested a 10-year-old choirboy, Lynn finds himself a free man after getting defrocked, serving more than a year in Pennsylvania prison. Sentenced to a three-to-six-year sentence June 24, 2012, Lynn was the highest ranking U.S.-based Roman Catholic official to serve time in the Church’s notorious priest sex abuse scandal. Ordered discharged from prison by a Pennsylvania Superior Court appeals panel, Lynn’s case goes to the heart of U.S. criminal justice system where prosecutors name and convict accessories to sex crimes.

Lynn was not accused himself of perpetrating child sex crimes in the Church or anywhere else. “The evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that [Lynn] acted with the ‘intent of promoting or facilitating’” the priest sex abuse. Prosecuting child sex abuse routinely involves a cascade of accessories, linked to the crime by some association with the bureaucracy. Prosecutors believed they established enough evidence to prove that Lynn intended to transfer a known pedophile priest to a different parish where he proceeded to molest a choirboy. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said his office was considering appealing the Superior Court panel’s reversal of Lynn’s conviction. Lynn’s attorney Thomas Bergstrom said the reversal proved that Lynn should never have been convicted in the first place. Lynn’s case raises real concerns about guilt-by-association.

When Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was convicted June 22, 2012 of 45-of-48 counts of child sex ranging about 15-years from 1994-2009, it raised the exact same guilt-by-association issues, resulting in the termination of Penn State’s iconic football coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and University President Graham Spencer. Prosecutors made the same arguments consistent with Pennsylvania state law that any accessory along the abuse chain must also stand accountable. State child sex abuse laws typically identify accessories to the crimes, whether or not they had anything to do with the sex acts. Creating a cascade of criminal responsibility makes no sense other than serving the state’s needs for more easy convictions. No accessory to a crime should be guilty unless they’re directly involved with the crime itself.

Pennsylvania’s child endangerment statutes applied to Lynn when he served as secretary of clergy for Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1994-2004. “A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18-years-of-age,” read the law that applied to Lynn at the time of his conviction. Stretching accountability to include someone “supervising the welfare of a child under 18-years-of-age” or worse yet in 2007 amending the law to include those overseeing the people supervising the child, stretches logic to the breaking point. U.S. jurisprudence specifically targets lawbreakers, not those accessories, real or imagined, along a theoretical line of accountability. Lynn’s 2012 conviction shows just how far out-of-whack the law has gone. If you carry the same logic to the nth degree, you’d have to hold the Pope and all his cardinals accountable for all criminal acts.

Tossing out Lynn’s conviction, the Pennsylvania appeals panel attempted to restore some sanity back to a criminal justice systems that’s run amok. “Once again, another high-ranking Catholic official who repeatedly endangered kids and enabled predators is escaping punishment,” said Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests [SNAP], again, holding anyone along the chain-of-command accountable for individual acts of individuals. Whether or not in the Church, Schools or corporations, no one should be convicted of a crime unless it can be proved beyond-a-reasonable-doubt that they perpetrated a crime. Today’s prosecutions for drunk driving don’t prosecute passengers because they were drinking or pouring drinks for the driver. Only the driver who exceeds the legal blood-alcohol limit can be convicted of DUI or DWI, not all the folks in the car or at the bar.

Pennsylvania’s state appeals panel got it right that Lynn didn’t perpetrate the sex act, torturing logic that he’s accountable for any other crime. While it’s easy for prosecutors to include folks “guilty-by-association,” it defies all legal principles to folks accountable for criminal acts. Whether in the Church, schools, corporations or anywhere else, only criminal perpetrators should stand accountable, not convenient accessories guilty-by-association. “If kids are to be safer, we need to hold employers more responsible, not less responsible, for putting innocent children in harm’s way,” said SNAP, mirroring today’s prevailing wisdom that turns the criminal justice system on its head. No matter how well-intentioned, the criminal justice system isn’t served when laws are written to include accessories to crimes guilty only by their proximity to criminal perpetrators.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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